NEW YORK -- The New Jersey Devils forged their way into the Eastern Conference Finals on the back of their relentless forecheck.
The ability to harass the puck handler in his own zone and force turnovers led to the stunning five-game ouster of the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. The forecheck got more and more effective as that series moved along; the cumulative mental and physical scars it inflicted eventually paying huge dividends.
The Devils' plan in this series is to feed a steady diet of that same forecheck to the top-seeded Rangers, believing they can force the more mobile defenders on New York to make the same mistakes Philadelphia's players made.
RANGERS VS. DEVILS
Rangers take Game 1 with 3-0 winBy Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer
Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 21 shots he faced, leading the Rangers to a 3-0 victory over the Devils in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
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"When we got it below their defense, we did a good job of getting the puck back," Devils captain Zach Parise said after Game 1.
The Rangers had to agree, even after taking a 3-0 decision Monday night.
"That team has really picked up its intensity as far as hounding the puck all over the ice, and they make it difficult on you," Rangers forward Mike Rupp told NHL.com. "Once you get running around in your own zone, you got to do everything you can to keep it on the outside and weather it."
For stretches of the game Monday, the Devils used their forecheck as well as it can be used, forcing turnovers behind the goal line and then establishing a cycle to maintain possession for extended periods of time -- especially in the second period. The forecheck forced the Rangers into several icings and took a crowd ready to rock right out of the game.
"The second period was great and we pretty much dictated play," said Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who had the best seat for much of the second-period action, standing idle at the other end of the ice while the Devils hemmed the Rangers in their own zone for several consecutive shifts.
But where the Flyers came unhinged under the unrelenting pressure, the Rangers used their defensive system to weather the surge and eventually take the initiative. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist played a huge role, making some key second-period saves as the Devils warmed to the task.
"Surges are a big part of playoff hockey," Ranger defenseman Ryan McDonagh told NHL.com. "We had a few of our own, as well. That's where Henrik is so awesome. He wants to step up and keep us in the game and keep up us off the board. When you handle those situations, it is almost a momentum killer for them. We got a power play at the end of the second there and carried it into the third period."
In that third period, the Rangers turned a 0-0 stalemate that was tilting in New Jersey's favor into a 3-0 victory that draws first blood in this best-of-seven series. Defenseman Dan Giradi scored the game's opening goal in the first minute of the third period and Chris Kreider, who set up Girardi's goal, scored the second goal. The Rangers added an empty-net tally to finish the scoring.
But while the scoreline looked convincing when it was over, the Rangers knew better.
"It really looked bad for a while, but I thought we did a good job of not giving up that prime scoring opportunity," Rupp said.
That, right there, is the high wire the Rangers know they will have to walk through this series.
"That team has really picked up its intensity as far as hounding the puck all over the ice, and they make it difficult on you. Once you get running around in your own zone, you got to do everything you can to keep it on the outside and weather it."
-- Rangers forward Mike Rupp on the Devils' ability to force turnovers
They understand the Devils are going to come in waves to create havoc in the attacking zone and they know that the key to them advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 18 years will come down to the ability to blunt that forecheck with minimal damage.
"We knew it would be a way different tempo than the Washington series," Girardi told NHL.com. "Washington pulled out a lot and was a more safer team and New Jersey is more our style of play -- on the forecheck and in your face, not giving any space in the neutral zone. We knew that was coming.
"They had some good pressure on us. They were trying to take the walls away and I think for the most part, most of those shots were from the outside, but they are going to get their chances when we are out there for a while, and hopefully they don't spread us out too much.
"I just think we try to do our best when it is a long shift to keep everything to the outside and block shots."
Most likely, this series will come down to whose best -- New Jersey's forecheck or New York's defensive solutions -- proves to better.
Monday, the Rangers' best was better, by the slimmest margin, and as a result they claimed Game 1.